Austin at Large: The Way We Got Here
On the journey to today’s Austin, Ron Davis helped make the road by walking
It's not all that out of character that even in death, former Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis stayed one step out of the spotlight while other, louder news was being made. The longtime champion of the Eastern Crescent got a lot done that way, in a career stretching back more than 30 years. Upon the news last week of his passing on Tuesday, Feb. 2, at age 75, his allies and successors said as much; Commissioner Jeff Travillion noted that Davis "spent decades fighting for the people of eastern Travis County, working to improve the quality of life ... He was a trailblazer whose love for the Eastern Crescent was only surpassed by his love for his family." And Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said Davis "was a force of nature when it came to advocating for communities in the Eastern Crescent. When it comes to fighting for environmental justice, I'll always look to his tireless service as the gold standard."
Davis served on Commissioners Court for 18 years, winning election in 1998 to succeed Sam Biscoe when he became county judge, and being succeeded in turn by Travillion in 2016. All three of those men, along with many other Black women and men in Austin, put in decades of rich and robust service to this place that've been to the unquestionable benefit of all its people, whether or not they're Black or have lived here for generations or have spent much time in the Eastern Crescent. These elders often feel as if they must be immortal, their guidance eternal, and for Davis to now go on ahead is a bit startling to many, even after his long and full life.
On the Inside, and Out
Back in the day, Davis stood apart from the political consensus of the Austin Black establishment despite being born into it; his grandfather, the Rev. Silas Leonard "S.L." Davis, led first David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church then Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, the latter for 49 years until he died in 1988 at the age of 100. From his pulpit, he schooled both Black and white Austin, Eastside and Westside, on the word of the Lord and also on right living; when people got up to mischief on rowdy 12th Street, two blocks from his church, S.L. Davis would get involved, and his friend the judge – a man named Ralph Yarborough; you may have heard of him – even tried cases in Davis' home. He has a street named for him; the family is large, and other members have left their own legacy in East Austin's civic and cultural life.
Much is made today of the segregation and injustice first put to paper in the 1928 City Plan that made Black East Austin a resource-starved enclave within the pleasant precincts of Texas' gracious capital and college town. Within those barriers, and despite consistently being treated worse and getting less than the rest of the city, Black East Austin developed deep resilience and authority, and as the Jim Crow barriers slowly dropped away, its leaders came to terms with their white counterparts with strength and without deference, though also, in the main, without much confrontation. There is some substance, not just euphemism, to the old at-large City Council's informal but effective scheme to ensure Black and brown representation being called a "gentlemen's agreement."
That often meant that communities of color in East Austin and beyond, without conceding their civil rights and demands for equity, aligned with Austin's Westside business and political elites in a vision for the city's greater good – managed growth, hard-edged commitments to job creation and public safety, and other verities of the Tarrytown Era. When that consensus started to crack within white Austin as dissent to safeguard our nature and culture led to the Barton Springs Era, a lot of Eastside leaders stayed on what became the conservative side of the local political line. Ron Davis did not.
Before It Had a Name
What Harper-Madison called out in her tribute – "environmental justice" – didn't even have a name in Austin when Davis, at the center of an activist network called the East Austin Strategy Team, began to demand it for his neighbors. He did his part, probably more than anyone, to organize the Eastside to support efforts to protect Barton Springs, the Edwards Aquifer, and all of our vulnerable natural assets. In return, his efforts defined new frontiers for a Central Texas green movement that had not really comprehended such depredations as the massive Govalle gasoline tank farm that poisoned the soil and water of thousands, the unchecked expansion of Northeast Austin landfills, or the lack of clean drinking water for what were then isolated communities in the Eastern Crescent and now are some of our fastest-growing neighborhoods.
These were not at all safe or easy things to fight for, and while EAST pressed on with organizing and direct action, Davis was defeated in more than one election for both city and county office prior to finally joining the Commissioners Court. But he got them done, making a road by walking in places where Austin needed to go. He deserves to rest in power.
Viewing for Davis’ homegoing will be Friday, Feb. 12, 4-7pm at Mt. Olive Baptist, 1800 E. 11th (near Chicon). Celebration of life is Saturday, Feb. 13, at 11am at Mt. Olive, followed by burial at Evergreen Cemetery. COVID-19 protocols will be observed.